Holy Week IV: The Vigil of Easter


A quick note that the Vigil of Easter, as we know it today, does not appear in its entirety in any of the Lutheran sources surveyed, though, as with other days in Holy Week, some of the chants and texts do make an appearance.

Blessing of the New Fire

The Easter Vigil does not properly begin with the Blessing of the New Fire, but rather begins with the seven penitential psalms (without Gloria Patri) followed by an abbreviated litany, with this verse inserted three times toward the end of the litany:

That Thou wouldst be pleased to bl+ess and con+secrate this fire:
We beseech Thee to hear us.

The celebrant, wearing a cope, continues with a handful of collects, the first of which is as follows:

O God, who by Thy Son the Cornerstone, hast bestowed upon Thy faithful the fire of Thy love: hal+low to the benefit of our use this New Fire struck from stone, and grant us by this Paschal feast to be so enkindled with heavenly desires that with cleansed hearts we may be enabled to attain to the perpetual feast of glory; through Jesus Christ…

Translated by Matthew Carver

Interestingly, recent Roman use, as well as Roman use in the late 15th century, has claritatis rather than c[h]aritatis, the fire “of Thy brightness” rather than the fire “of Thy love.” The latter reading, however, seems to be found throughout northern Europe, in every German source consulted, in the British Isles (York), in a very difficult to read handwritten missal from Sweden (Linköping 1450), in Croatia (Zagreb 1511), and in a German-area 11th century Rituale Benedictinum. The challenge in comparing this particular collect is that the prayers for the Blessing of the New Fire are found in some missals, but in others they are relegated to ancillary volumes, such as rituals. It would be quite interesting to look back farther and more broadly to see where the divergence took place. But that’s for another time.

Following the above collect, another two or three collects (depending on the source) are appointed, after which coals are taken from the fire and placed in the thurible, and a candle (not the Paschal candle) is lit from the new fire, after which another collect is sometimes said for blessing the incense.

Following this, the hymn Inventor rutili is sung as all proceed into the church, led by the lighted candle. The priest or deacon who is to bless the paschal candle by singing the Exultet proceeds to the paschal candle, placed at the Gospel side of the altar, not lighting the candle until the words “Which, although it be divided into parts of borrowed light, knoweth not loss,” at which point the other candles and lights in the church are then also lit from the new fire.

Office of Readings

Following the Exultet, the Office of Readings commences. Each reading is read without title or response and is directly followed by a Collect, with “Let us pray.” In three instances, the readings continue into a Tract from the scriptural text immediately following (e.g.: the reading from Exodus 14:24-15a is followed by the tract Cantemus Domino from Exodus 15:1b-3), in which case the Collect follows the Tract.

In addition, there are two possible variations of the Office of Readings, a major office and a minor office. The minor office consists of only four readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Exodus 14:24-15a with its tract; Deuteronomy 31:22-30 with its tract; and Isaiah 4:1-6 with its tract.

The major office is comprised of twelve readings, listed in order as follows:

  1. Genesis 1:1-2:2 (Creation)
  2. Genesis 5:32-8:21, ab. (Flood)
  3. Genesis 22:1-19 (Binding of Isaac)
  4. Exodus 14:24-15:1a and tract (Crossing of the Red Sea)
  5. Isaiah 54:17b-55:11 (Come ye to the waters)
  6. Baruch 3:1-37 (God as the fountain of wisdom)
  7. Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of Dry Bones)
  8. Isaiah 4:1-6 and tract (Renewal of Zion)
  9. Exodus 12:1-11 (Passover)
  10. Jonah 3:1-10 (Jonah preaches to Ninevah)
  11. Deuteronomy 31:22-30 and tract (Moses Predicts Israel’s Rebellion)
  12. Daniel 3:1-23 (Three Men in the Fiery Furnace)

The beautiful Benedicite omnia opera is not mentioned anywhere in connection with the Easter Vigil, though the somewhat similar Benedictus es Domine Deus patrum nostrorum is appointed to be sung following the similar reading at the close of the Office of Readings on Ember Saturdays. The Benedicite omnia opera is instead properly appointed as part of the psalmody at Sunday Lauds.

Instead, the historic practice is to close both the major and the minor office with the tract Sicut cervus, Psalm 42:1-3, which, not coincidentally, is also one of the most commonly assigned tracts for funeral masses in our sources, appearing in twenty-five missals (the Roman tract Absolve, Domine being almost completely unknown, appearing only once). You might be familiar with Palestrina’s famous setting of Sicut cervus, and, if not, you’ll want to remedy that.

Following this final tract, the office concludes with these two beautiful collects:

Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we who keep the Paschal Feast, being inflamed with celestial desire, may thirst after the fountain of life, even Jesus Christ…

Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully regard the devotion of Thy people who are being regenerated, who as the hart panteth after the water brooks: and mercifully grant that the thirst of their faith may sanctify body and soul in the ministration of holy baptism; through…

Translated by Matthew Carver

Following these collects, the Office of Readings has concluded, and the Blessing of the Font takes place.

Blessing of the Font

Rather than giving a detailed analysis of this rite without providing the necessary texts, I will instead provide a very brief overview.

The priest, other sacred ministers, and baptismal candidates proceed to the font as a litany is sung, bringing the paschal candle with them. After a brief prayer, the priest proceeds into a sung preface equal to or slightly lengthier than the Exultet. During the singing of this preface, the water is divided repeatedly in the shape of a cross, the priest blows on the water in an exsufflation similar to that at baptism, and he takes water in his hand and sprinkles it in four directions, representing the rivers of Paradise. Finally, the base of the blessed paschal candle, lit with the new fire, is dipped into the font, and the priest again blows on the water, this time in the shape of the Greek letter Ψ (psi) or the Hebrew letter ש (shin/sin), depending on the source in question. This dipping of the paschal candle and the subsequent exsufflation are done three times in total.

Once this preface has come to its conclusion, the priest takes one spatula in each hand, one dipped in chrism, the other in the oil of catechumens, using them to make the sign of the cross in the water three times. Following this, any baptismal candidates are baptized, and a brief litany might be sung, or the completion of the litany begun before the blessing of the font, or the Kyrie in the paschal tone is simply intoned.

Mass of Easter Vigil

Following the Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis is intoned and the bells are rung for the duration of the Gloria. The collect is said in the usual way, and the mass continues in a somewhat normal fashion, with a few exceptions.

While the Easter Vigil is no longer Lent, it isn’t quite Easter, either. So, as a result, the Gradual has an Alleluia at its beginning, but the Alleluia is not repeated at its conclusion, and the Gradual is followed not by a Verse, but by a Tract.

The Gospel according to St. Matthew is read as usual, but the Creed is not said, nor is the Agnus Dei. The Easter Preface is sung with the words “on this night,” and as on the previous two days, the service continues immediately with Vespers, without opening versicles.

The Psalm is 117, without Gloria Patri, and the antiphon is three Alleluias. The Magnificat is sung without Gloria Patri, its antiphon being Matthew 28:1. Following the Magnificat, Mass and Vespers are concluded together with the Complend, and the service closes with “Bless we the Lord, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia” / “Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia” and no benediction.

Lutheran usage

As mentioned above, none of the Lutheran sources surveyed retained an entire Vigil of Easter. Ludecus’ Missale of 1589 provides the Easter Vigil Mass, from Kyrie onward, with Inventor rutili serving as an Introit of sorts, and an adapted and abbreviated version of the Exultet serving as the Proper Preface.

The propers for Vespers provided in the medieval sources are provided with music in Magdeburg 1613 and Ludecus’ Vesperale, and Ludecus also provides music for the extended Benedicamus with alleluias.

Many thanks to Mr. Matthew Carver for his translation and engraving work, past and present, without whom this entire project would be quite impossible.

For the other posts in this series, see here:

2 thoughts on “Holy Week IV: The Vigil of Easter

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